Italy Is fabulous and beautiful, and we all want to go there—except for one thing: It is very, very crowded…especially now, with all the revenge travelers. If you’ve dreamed of going to Italy, only to discover it’s everyone else’s dream, too, I have just the place for you—and it’s not Venice. I suggest you escape the crowds In Udine, in the neighboring region of Friuli (pronounced Free u lee). Check out these five hidden gems located in far northeastern Italy—and you can have them almost entirely to yourself.
Why Friuli, Italy?
How did I discover Friuli? Well, Friuli had been showing up in my life for years. I hosted a college student from Friuli in 2016. Then, last fall, I had a Friuli-inspired gastronomic experience thanks to Master Sommelier Bobby Stucky, who brought his restaurant, Frasca (located in Boulder), to Dallas for one night. I loved it—and in my mind at least, I was already making plans to travel to Friuli.
Shortly after that dinner, I wrote an article about a Texas-based cheesemaker from Friuli, who then connected me with his Friuli-based friend, who said, “I’d love to show someone from Texas around my region.” Who can say no to that?
So on my recent trip to Italy, I went to Friuli for a few days. My guide had only one day to show me around, so I saw some of the highlights and received a broad overview of the Province of Udine.
Imagine Escaping The Crowds In Italy
Impressed by the architecture, landscapes, food, and wine, I was stunned that there seemed to be very few tourists. Compared to dodging people on the narrow streets and bridges of Venice, it was nice to be able to walk freely and not at the pace of the people in front of you. And that realization became the inspiration for this article.
Friuli, or Friuli Venezia Giulia, borders Austria, Slovenia, and the Adriatic Sea. To the west is the region of the Veneto, home to the city of canals, Venice. But you don’t need to go to Venice! Friuli has it all: plains, rolling hills, vineyards, mountains with crumbling castles, and the sea.
Escape The Crowds In Udine
I based myself in the city of Udine, in the Province of Udine. It’s centrally located, with a good train connection to almost anywhere (Venice is 1.5 hours). Udine is the second largest city in Friuli and was once an important outpost of the Roman Empire. It’s no accident that Udine is very reminiscent of Venice—it was part of the Venetian Republic from 1420 until 1797. For architecture, history, food, and wine lovers, this region can’t be beaten if you’re seeking an authentic Italian experience.
From Udine, we visited some of the charming villages located within an hour or less of the city. It rained a lot, so we focused on hilltop lookouts, castle ruins, and cathedrals, with a stop in San Daniele for what else: San Daniele ham. We managed to cover a lot of ground, and I got a few good photos between rain showers. I only had one day with my new friend, so I had to roll with it!
What To See In Udine
Udine has a bustling cafe scene as you’ll notice from the photos and video; Piazza Matteotti is surrounded by cafes on every side. It’s also a very pretty city. The piazzas and cafes invite you to sit and soak up the atmosphere.
Piazza Matteotti Is where the locals hang out. Much like Piazza San Marco in Venice, Piazza Matteotti is the outdoor living room of Udine. In the center is a fountain that acts as the fulcrum around which life is lived: children run and play, families gather, and lovers meet. Pick a table at any cafe and watch the tapestry unfold. Even on weekends, it was never too crowded to find a table. My favorite coffee place each morning was Hausbrandt because they had a good selection of tea, something you don’t often find in Italian cafes.
Piazza Della Libertå
The historic heart of Udine is Piazza Della Libertå. What stood out most for me was Loggia di Lionello…It recalls the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Be sure to take a walk here at night, as it is all beautifully lit.
Another striking architectural feature in Piazza Della Libertå is the Portico San Giovanni. The long-covered portico, arches, and flying lion, as well as the clock tower designed after the Torre dell’ Orologio in Piazza San Marco, all speak of the once powerful rule of the most Serene Republic of Venice.
Via Mercatovecchio is the main street. Where it meets the piazza, the street begins to curve dramatically. Lined with shops, villas, and cafes, you’ll want to take a walk down this lovely cobblestoned street. If you follow it to the end, you will eventually find the Piazza Matteotti.
Check out my short video and you’ll see…no crowds!
If you love art, Udine is a gem. Tiepolo lived in Udine and did some of his most beautiful work there…and by the way, he was from Venice. The Duomo di Udine houses an altarpiece by Tiepolo, and you won’t have to line up to see it. Other places of interest in Udine include Palazzo Patriarchale, where you can see frescoes by Tiepolo; Church of Saint Mary of the Castle, believed to be the oldest church in Udine and possibly of Lombard origin; and Gallerie del Tiepolo, located in the Diocesan Museum in the Church of the Purità.
Our first stop was Fagagna, just a twenty-minute drive from Udine, Fagagna was an important hilltop defense site— so of course, there was a castle. The castle is in ruins, but there is also a tiny church, a bell tower, and some of the outer walls. The location affords incredible views in all directions.
Hidden Gem, Venzone
Surrounded by the foothills of the Alps, Venzone was declared one of Italy’s most beautiful villages in 2017. The city suffered two earthquakes in 1976. The first caused massive damage; the second earthquake completed the destruction of the city. Incredibly, the entire city has been painstakingly rebuilt, brick by brick.
Be sure to visit the Duomo Sant’ Andrea Apostolo, where you can see some of the original frescos; pieces were retrieved from the earthquake rubble and placed where they would have been before the earthquake. Beautiful sculptures and art commemorating the earthquake and survivors adorn the interior of the Duomo. There are also photos showing the destruction after the earthquake and the stages of rebuilding.
Mummies Of Venzone
In 1642, excavations at the Duomo revealed the now-infamous mummies of Venzone. The mummies of Venzone were the product of a natural phenomenon. The mummification process occurred due to a rare parasitic mold, which covered the entire corpse and dehydrated them thus stopping the decomposition.
Just outside the cathedral is the Chapel of San Michele, where you can see the mummies. The information I found about the mummies was on a sign just outside the chapel. It states that there were 21 mummies, but after the earthquakes, only 15 survived. Of those fifteen mummies, ten are housed in the chapel, and five are in the crypt of the Duomo.
Just as in Venzone, Gemona was demolished by the 1976 earthquake. We made a quick stop here to see the cathedral.
Santa Maria Assunta of Gemona del Friuli
The Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta in Gemona is considered one of the most important medieval religious monuments in the region. It’s a beautiful cathedral, with the mountains providing a dramatic background. The original church was built in 1190, then renovated in 1290 by Giovanni Griglio, who added the massive St. Christopher sculpture to the facade.
The church has suffered several earthquakes throughout the centuries. On the northern side are the Bell Tower and a terracotta spire reaching a height of 50 meters. Its construction began in 1341 but was interrupted because of injuries caused by a strong earthquake in 1348. Completed in 1369, it was entirely destroyed by the earthquake of 1976.
Extracted from the earthquake rubble is a 15th-century crucifix, a symbol of the terror of the earthquake. It now hangs inside the church.
San Daniele is famous for the slightly sweet, nutty-flavored ham produced there. The ham is a DOP food product, which means it’s protected by strict regulations and cannot be produced anywhere else in the world. There are many bars that specialize in serving San Daniele ham along with some Grissini and a glass of local white wine.
Chiesa Sant’ Antonio Abate
If you go to San Daniele be sure to visit the church of Sant’ Antonio Abate, a small church with a fantastic fresco cycle by Pelligrino da San Daniele. They are considered the best in the region and the tiny church is sometimes referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Friuli.
Cividale del Friuli
Though small, Cividale del Friuli has a number of interesting historical sites, not to mention it is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever visited.
I went in search of the Devil’s Bridge, probably the most photographed place in Cividale. At first, I couldn’t see what was so special about this bridge. Well, check out my video and see for yourself.
Lombard Temple And Monastery of Santa Maria In Valle
A highlight of Cividale which I discovered a little too late, is the Lombard Temple and the monastery of Santa Maria in Valle. Both are Unesco World Heritage Sites of outstanding cultural value. The Lombards were Germanic, crossing the Alps and ruling Italy for hundreds of years. They were pagans who converted to Christianity, and eventually, defeated by Charlemagne, converted to Catholicism. The temple in Cividale is one of the best examples of Lombard architecture in the world.
National Archaeological Museum
“The National Archaeological Museum of Cividale del Friuli, founded in 1817, today is housed in the Palazzo dei Proveditori Veneti. It was built in the 16th century according to the design of Andrea Palladio. The first floor is dedicated to the Lombard Exhibition that displays, in chronological order, very important finds from the first settlement in “Forum Julii” (6th-7th cent.) to the last expression of the Lombard art, already penetrated by the Carolingian world.”
There is much more to see in Cividale…I’d recommend at least one day there but even two would not be too much. If you’re staying in Udine as I was, you can take the train. It’s a thirty-minute trip and was only 5 euros round trip.
Skip Venice And Go To The Province Of Udine
San Daniele ham is just one example of the delicious food unique to Friuli. Frico, a dish made with the local Montasio cheese, and potatoes, is one of the best things to eat there. Food is a sort of a mash-up of Austrian, Slavic, and Italian. But the food and wine are simply another reason to explore this outpost of Northeastern Italy, along with the scenery, spectacular cathedrals, and art. Skip Venice and go to the Province of Udine in the region of Friuli. You won’t regret it. Let me know if you go! Have you been in the past? Leave a comment. Where did you go?